Kenilworth Kibitzer

A blog for members of the Kenilworth Chess Club.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


A Bust to the Caro-Kann

The Caro-Kann is a venerable defense to 1. e4 with history dating back to 1886, when Horatio Caro and Marcus Kann jointly analyzed the inauspicious looking 1....c6. Nowadays the Caro-Kann is favored by gray-haired ex-Soviets with a high tolerance for pain. There are several principled variations White can choose from against the 'Kann, so players from the Black side have to be prepared for any of them. Not necessarily different from other openings in that respect, but the 'Kann more than others is built on defensive rather than counterattacking principles, and favors the player who is not averse to long grinds and opening-to-endgame transitions (along with occasional transpositions to 1. d4 openings such as the Queen's Gambit or Nimzo-Indian defense). On the other hand the Caro-Kann has been a deadly weapon in the hands of positional masters like Karpov and Petrosian, and no less than Bobby Fischer famously had terrible problems from the White side - in his youth the Soviets discovered this flaw and bashed him with it relentlessly.
I'll play 1. e4 if you promise not to play 1....c6. Deal?

Since Bobby never saw fit to extend his excellent "Bust to the Openings" series beyond the King's Gambit, we'll take a look at one of his most troubled openings for a clear bust. Much to my surprise, a total refutation exists in the much-studied classical, or Capablanca, variation. Long thought to have been analyzed to a virtual draw, we will now prove this line to end in disaster for Black in all variations. Computer analysis and world champions may disagree, but rather than personally defeat the naysayers on the way to world fame I will share my insights with you, so together we can wreak havoc on the weekend quads of America.

1. e4!
Best by test

1... c6 2. d4 d5
White has the precious pawn duo but Black smartly responds in the center

3. Nc3 dxe
Not much choice for Black here - either he has to go into a Modern with 3....g6 or he will have trouble developing his pieces without the pawn exchange. Now the question - Black gives White's knight a free ride the center, but what is it worth?

4. Nxe4 Bf5
The main move, most challenging. Black gets his light-squared bishop out of prison with tempo, and looks to play a favorable version of the Slav. Also possible are ....Nd7 or ....Nf6, though I think those lines lead to comfortable edges to White as a rule. Perhaps we'll return to those later.

5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4!? h6
Alekhine once considered h4!? too exotic and thought that Bd3, O-O and c3 were enough to give White a plus. However, in the church of Yaacov we have faith in Black's position where Black will build light bricks on c6 and e6 leaving his dark-squared bishop happy. Conversely White's remaining bishop stares forlornly at c3 and d4, and asks 'Why??'. No, more concessions must be extracted from Black and a kingside bind with h4-h5 is thought to be the ticket, though of course the h-pawn can become a weakness. ('A typical dilemma in modern opening play' -Kasparov)

7. Nf3 Nd7
In recent times Black has also been trying ...Nf6!?, letting the White knight jump into e5 with the threat to snap the bishop on g6. However, the bishop can retreat to h7 and Black seeks to prove that the knight on e5 is a weakness. Black delays the development of the knight on b8 with the hopes of getting in ...c5 and ...Nc6 (Gallagher points out that this move is a rare achivement for Black in the Caro-Kann). A subtlety worth exploring? This is one of the challenges in fighting the Caro-Kann - one must have the same tolerance for pain that a Caro player has. Again, perhaps we'll return to this later.

8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 BxB 10. QxB
And so Black has not only got his light-squared bishop into play but has exchanged it for White's LSB, a strong achievement! However, white concedes this as a prerequisite for queenside castling, which is the only way to leverage the advanced h-pawn in his favor through future kingside pawn advances. Now Black is at a crossroads with several choices that we will take a look at in the future. Where to castle? How to develop? 10 moves of theory but we're only halfway there. Tolerance for pain - respect it in your opponent, nurture it in yourself. Positional understanding must prove victorious. More later.

Actually, Fischer had a lot of trouble with the Caro Kann against high-level competition, and the Russians played it frequently against him precisely because they did not respect his preparation here. He mostly played the Two Knights variation and then, later, the Panov-Botvinnik Attack -- though he also played the Exchange and sometimes the Classical lines, though you won't find too many games against high level competition with the Classical (but lots of simul victories with it).

Steve Stoyko thinks the Classical is the way to go. White has some nagging edge, but it seems to me to play right into Black's hands. You also have to deal with the Nf6 line like Yaacov plays.

If you want a simple system against the Caro-Kann, I think the Exchange Variation or the Apocalypse Attack ( make a lot of sense. It is a great strategic position that can teach players a lot about how to handle a common pawn formation (one that also arises in the Exchange QGD).

Most GMs think that only the Advance Variation offers White real chances of advantage.
I think 'nagging edge' is the key - I believe Black struggles for full equality against best play from White in the classical lines. It's not for everyone - there are those who say a quiet maneuvering game gives Black what he wants in going to the Caro-Kann but I'm not necessarily convinced. What Black really wants is to play these lines against someone with only a surface understanding of the ideas, and who will struggle to make inroads once out of book. I think the evaluation of the classical lines goes into the late middlegame/early endgame, and only people with a love for these positions will flourish. Count me as one (I'm guessing Steve is another). If someone wants to go Petrosianic on me I'll double down.

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